Taiwan’s DPP Eyes Potentially Divisive Presidential Primary; KMT Mired by “Indecision”
With a little less than a year to the next elections for the President and all 113 seats in the Legislative Yuan of the Republic of China, former Premier William Lai of the governing Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) formally registered to run for Taiwan’s highest political position on March 18, 2019, thus setting up a potentially contentious DPP presidential primary as incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen is seeking re-election for a second term.
In the wake of the “nine-in-one” local elections last November that delivered a stinging rebuke to the pro-Taiwan DPP — namely, by sacking a majority of DPP officials serving in the nine local levels of government up for election — President Tsai resigned as DPP chairwoman to take responsibility for the electoral shellacking but vowed to finish her term and seek re-election in 2020.
As the incumbent Premier and formal head of the executive branch, William Lai offered his resignation verbally to Tsai on the night of the election to take political responsibility for the government’s poor performance; however, Tsai declined to immediately accept Lai’s resignation, instead insisting he stay on “in the interest of political stability and continuity” and deal with the government’s pending legislative agenda, including the budget for 2019, for the remainder of the year.
Ultimately, on Jan. 10, 2019, Lai announced that Tsai had approved his resignation; upon the resignation of Lai and his entire cabinet the next day (per standard practice), Tsai proceeded to name former Premier (and her former boss) and DPP campaigning heavyweight Su Tseng-chang as Lai’s successor to head a cabinet reshuffle amid “challenges inside and outside of the country.”
Meanwhile, the DPP elected former Cabinet Secretary-General Cho Jung-tai — a consensus candidate backed by mainly middle-aged party members in local government posts — over the openly pro-independence Michael You, the chairman of the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation, to succeed Tsai as DPP chairman on Jan. 6. Cho’s policy positions are commonly regarded to be closer to Tsai’s than You’s, and his election to serve out the rest of Tsai’s term was read by observers as a vote for “continuity” and Tsai’s party faction retaining major (if not controlling) influence over the DPP.
While the DPP announced that it would begin its candidate selection and nomination process by April, with results ideally announced by mid-April at the earliest, DPP Chairman Cho warned his party members to avoid “repeated displays of collective action” in support of Lai or Tsai, to respect the DPP’s selection process, and to maintain their passion and commitment to the party regardless of which candidate secures the DPP’s nomination. The DPP is seeking to persuade the two contenders to run on the same ticket or have one drop out; barring that, a candidate will be selected from the results of opinion polls carried out by five separate firms.
An opinion survey by the independence-leaning think tank Taiwan Brain Trust released on March 18 puts Lai ahead of any other possible candidate in a hypothetical head-on-head election. Additionally, in a hypothetical three-way election with Lai, a candidate from the opposition Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), and independent Taipei City Mayor Ko Wen-je, at least 30 to 40 percent of respondents consistently picked Lai, a plurality that would hypothetically deliver Lai to the office of President.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the aisle, the opposition pro-China KMT has been riven by an unclear candidate selection mechanism, with the two top contenders — former New Taipei City Mayor Eric Chu and former Legislative Yuan Speaker Wang Jin-pyng — squaring off with the KMT’s party brass over whether or not to include rising star Mayor Han Kuo-yu of Kaohsiung City, who secured the KMT’s first mayoral win in Kaohsiung since 1998.
Statements by KMT Chairman Wu Den-yih in February to have the KMT nominee be selected by only KMT members — contrary to growing calls among his own ranks for the candidate to be selected by results from public opinion polls and member surveys — were criticized heavily by KMT heavyweights, with some reading his proposal as a means of securing the nomination for himself.
By Feb. 20, when Wang formally declared his intent to contest the KMT nomination, the KMT had decided to select a candidate on the basis of public polls and party member votes, weighed 70-30, although party leadership did not rule out drafting a candidate in an “all-out effort to win back power.”
With opinion polling consistently putting both Wang and Chu (who declared his intent to run on Christmas Day last year) behind Han (and even independent Ko), a senior member of the KMT suggested on March 21 that the KMT Central Standing Committee ought to consult Chu and Wang over whether or not to include Han and, if need be, how to select the KMT nominee.
Both Wang and Chu shot back at the insinuation for Han to be drafted into the KMT primary on the following day, with Wang asserting that the KMT’s “mercurial approach to nomination regulations made it difficult to comment or react” while Chu claimed that the consultation proposal would cause several other KMT presidential race dropouts to reconsider and complicate matters. Chu, however, did not rule out his support for drafting Han — should that be the best option for the KMT — but reiterated that the KMT needed to “handle this in a fair manner.”
The KMT is expected to name their candidate to contest the 2020 Presidential election at its national party congress to be held in late July or early August this year.
Per the decision of the Central Election Commission on March 19, 2019, Taiwan’s voters will head to the polls on Jan. 11, 2020, to elect the next President and Legislative Yuan. Final registration of candidates is due by Nov. 22; their place on the ballot is to be drawn on Dec. 9; and televised debates and press conferences between leading candidates are scheduled to run between Dec. 14 and Jan. 10, 2020.